In her recent essay “Texts Without Context,” New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani argues that web two-point-oh innovations have led to a world where–
More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.
Kakutani’s piece seems to be prompted by David Shields’s recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger, which she points out is a symptom of “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.” She continues–
Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime.
Kakutani keenly points out the stakes of such a facile media-land, even as she posits the real good that can come from technologies. In short, we seem to be heading into a future obsessed with immediacy to the point that sustained, analytical reading will not only no longer have place or merit with the general public, it will also be increasingly difficult as we learn to “read” new media in new ways. Put another way, we are becoming shallow.
I see this first-hand every day. I teach Advanced Placement high school English courses, mostly to kids aged 16-18. I’ve noticed that in the past seven years my students are less and less able to sustain concentration on challenging–or even particularly unchallenging pieces of rhetoric or literature in the classroom. My current students are less likely to read for pleasure than the kids I taught at the beginning of the last decade. They have all bought into the fiction of multitasking, the belief that one can frequently interrupt one’s reading of Shakespeare or Henry David Thoreau (or hell, even Stephen King or a Harry Potter book) with a quick text message, or, worse, a change of the channel (I have to literally begin each year by explaining to students that it is basically impossible to read something by a writer like Herman Melville or Cynthia Ozick with one eye on the television screen). You can imagine what how these shallow reading habits affect their research abilities. It’s not just my students though. Nationwide, the NCES reports that almost a third of high school graduates need reading remediation courses in college and that remediation classes are necessary for those students to earn college degrees. It’s pretty much an open secret in education that these numbers are drastically under-reported, with remedial classes often given euphemistic names to hide the appearance of shared institutional/student inadequacies. As Kakutani points out in her article, shallow attention spans, weak readers, and poor research skills could lead to drastic balkanization, cultural inertia, and just plain ole stupidity.
Kakutani’s article points to a future where “the blurring of news and entertainment” is normalized, so what better way to end than with an article from The Onion, published a week before “Texts Without Context.” The headline: “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.” The first paragraphs:
Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.
Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.
“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”
“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about.